When I first entered the nursing home, the atmosphere depressed me.
There was a constant smell of urine and disinfectant. There were people lined up in zombiesque formations waiting for lunch, for the night and for the inevitable.
That was not what I wanted to portray.
I wanted to capture their poetic layers of experience and strength and most of all I wanted to make them happy.
I struggled finding willing participants. After taking a picture I showed it to the person and often they did not like themselves in the image. They thought that they looked too old. That they should not be seen smoking when in fact it gave them an aura of forgotten stardom. That their face would not mean anything in a gallery. I went on a weekly basis for a year. I joined the bingo one afternoon. Found myself caught up in conversations that I had heard many times before. Some days I did not take any picture. In fact, I did not take out my camera at all. I was just there listening. This is how I came to know some people in particular. Created relationships and environments of care.
The woman on the image here is one of those people that I grew close to. During the time of my project she changed from being an outgoing active person, who was always around in her wheelchair, participating enthusiastically in all offered activities and particularly painting, to someone tied to the bed. She realised how her body was failing her. How everything she longed for moved quickly out of reach. On the day the picture was taken, a group of clowns was visiting. We all met coincidentally in her room where she was laying in her bed, crying, remembering the times she used to be able to participate more actively in fun events. I did not take pictures. We collectively sang songs and hugged her. Tried to dry her tears. The clowns gave me noses for my children to play with but after they had left I gave a nose to the woman. I thought she would want to remember the day. To my surprise she put it on, cried tears of happiness and posed for a picture. She allowed me to... no she asked me to capture her in a moment of gathered hope and joy within a time of darkness.
Her condition improved partially. Eventually she was able to go around in her wheelchair again although withdrawing from most other activities. We printed that image and hanged it in the corridor of the nursing home. Whenever I visit, she reports that even when she does not feel well, she tries to move a little in her wheelchair, at least down to the corridor where she can see her portrait and remember that day.
©1999-2018 Emiliano Leonardi